Why did Barack Obama lay an egg with his Oval Office speech this week? Most people assume that his failure to give any specifics on fixing the problem, his attempts to leverage the spill for his policy agenda, and his empty promises of yet another commission and a “czar” painted Obama as an empty suit far out of his depth. CNN has a different analysis of Obama’s failure — that we’re out of his depth:
President Obama’s speech on the gulf oil disaster may have gone over the heads of many in his audience, according to an analysis of the 18-minute talk released Wednesday.
Tuesday night’s speech from the Oval Office of the White House was written to a 9.8 grade level, said Paul J.J. Payack, president of Global Language Monitor. The Austin, Texas-based company analyzes and catalogues trends in word usage and word choice and their impact on culture.
Though the president used slightly less than four sentences per paragraph, his 19.8 words per sentence “added some difficulty for his target audience,” Payack said.
As it happens, I have some experience with reading-comprehension levels, from my days in the defense industry. When writing technical manuals, we had to calculate (by hand in those days) the average reading level in order to satisfy contractual obligations with the various service branches. Depending on the project and the target readership, those levels ranged between 8th- and 12th-grade levels. A grade level of 9.8 would have been about right for most of our projects, hardly qualifying as too intellectual.
It’s not easy to find data on the American average reading level. A 1993 study put it somewhere between 8th and 9th grade reading level, which would have been just short of the 9.8 level found by CNN’s expert. That seems rather low, however, when the US high school graduation rate was 69.2% in 2006. Granted, not everyone who graduates from high school has a reading level commensurate with the 12th grade, but one has to assume that they do better than middle-school rankings in order to get a high-school diploma.
If they don’t, doesn’t that indict the education system? We have steadily increased federal spending on education through the Clinton, Bush, and Obama administrations. If all that gets us is an electorate who mysteriously can’t comprehend a speech given at a writing level equivalent to that of an average 15-year-old kid, then we’ve spent money on the wrong things, and let the wrong people benefit from it.
Besides, there are other problems with this analysis. Reading levels don’t directly equate to verbal comprehension, for instance, nor does it factor issues like delivery. Mainly, however, the people criticizing Obama’s speech as wholly inadequate have at the least demonstrated a reading comprehension level above the high-school-freshman level, and have been criticizing it for substantive reasons. They haven’t been standing around scratching their heads, trying to figure out the President’s vocabulary, and the attempt by CNN to pass it off as just too intellectual for the hoi polloi is both snobbery and ignorance, an amusing and illuminating combination.